David Rogers on how the problems we face now are the same ones that defeated us 89 years ago

1917 & 1961

How much should the government intervene in the housing market? This sounds like a simple question about a basic need, but flick through the Building archive and it’s revealed to be a diabolical conundrum that has never been satisfactorily answered.

These days, the debate is about whether you can leave it to the market to match output with demographic change, and if not, how much you should intervene in it; The Greater London Authority’s concern about the death of the family home a couple of weeks ago (23 June, page 24) was caused by regulative over-correction, not market forces.

For most of its 163 years, Building’s view was that the government should keep its sausage fingers to itself. An editorial published in August 1917 was spitting mad at the idea of any state involvement in housing. This was, after all, “a field that has been adequately covered by private enterprise – until the meddling of theorists disturbed the operation of the laws of supply and demand”.

But was there to be no public subsidy to improve the housing of the poor? What about help for the “ordinary artisan class” (read: key workers)? Here the magazine softened its position. Poor areas could be given money if they turned into reservoirs for those diseases communicable to the better classes. To catch smallpox from a baronet might be endured, but to catch it from one’s maid …

As we know, if there’s one cove queerer than a theorist, it’s an enthusiast. And when it came to post-war “homes for heroes” (read: those meeting Decent Homes standards), the magazine didn’t hesitate to use the word.

“A great number of housing enthusiasts are of the opinion that a new start must be made after the war based on the assumed necessity of giving every worker in the country a dwelling coming up to a certain minimum standard without delay and at the expense of the nation.”

The editor knew how to put Bolsheviks like that in their place. “The function of government is to adjust the national burdens and to remove the causes that hamper private enterprise, not to embark on great schemes of State expenditure competing with the private trader, on the result of whose prosperity that of the State must in the end depend …

“The most pressing reform after the war must be the sweeping away of departments and the demobilisation of thousands of officials, not to pay for expensive and unnecessary experiments in time of peace.” Sir Peter Gershon could not have put it better.

Well, what a difference a world war makes. After the second one, the issue was not whether some small subsidy might not be tentatively extended to the infectious poor, but whether the whole housebuilding industry should be nationalised.

A leader in October 1961 betrayed a state of anxiety about Britain’s economic difficulties. It then ruminated on a conference of architects, economists and sociologists – that is, theorists and enthusiasts of the worst kind.

“Few are likely to disagree with the general outline it gives of the present position nor with the need for vigorous constructive action if the trouble for which we appear to be heading is to be avoided.

“It is the methods suggested for adoption that will arouse controversy, and, in some cases, acute opposition. The most controversial proposal is that the nation should acquire the freehold interest in all land.”

Well, quite.

The past lives of a magazine

Building’s recent redesign is part of a slow process of continual evolution. In the field of biology this can turn a tyrannosaurus rex into a chicken; in the field of publishing it can transform an Illustrated Weekly Magazine for the Architect, Engineer, Archaeologist, Constructor, Sanitary Reformer and Art-Lover, (published in June 1892), into the vital periodical you hold in your hands today …